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A Quick Guide to Rare Book Bindings

Never judge a book by its cover, right? In the case of rare books, the cover—or more accurately, the binding—of a book can significantly impact the book’s value. Collectors should know about the materials and terminology associated with book bindings.

This first edition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Twain) was bound in morocco, a soft, durable leather.

First Edition Mark Twain

Leather Book Bindings

For centuries, various types of leather have been used to bind books. The material is both durable and pliable, making it ideal for creating bindings that are beautiful yet long-lasting.
  • Calf hide is probably the most common leather used. It’s very soft with little visible grain. Calf can be treated in many ways, such as marbling, to add visual depth.
  • Morocco refers to bindings made of goatskin. It’s been used to bind books since around the 16th century and is often dyed bright colors.
  • Vellum used to be made of calf skin, but now it’s more often made of lamb or goat. The quality of vellum bindings varies greatly.
  • Roan is a cheaper leather binding made of sheepskin. It’s often used as a substitute for morocco, and most book collectors see it as a less desirable material.
  • Skiver is even cheaper than roan, but it often looks like roan if it’s had some wear. Skiver is probably the least desirable leather binding.
     

Other Binding Materials

The craft of book binding has evolved over time, and different materials have been used throughout the centuries.
  • Boards were used from the early 1700s through the mid 1800s. They were generally made of cheap material because the trend of the era was to have books custom bound for personal libraries. Some collectors prefer books with the original boards, since these are relatively rare.
  • Wrappers are similar to boards, but made with less durable material: usually heavy paper. They were used for smaller volumes, brochures, and pamphlets.
  • Cloth binding gained popularity around 1830, and it caught on as book buyers decided that cloth bindings were an acceptable alternative to rebinding all their books. Cloth is still a popular material today.

Rare book collectors need to understand not only the impact of a book’s binding on  the book’s value, but also the effects of rebinding a book. If you have questions about a book’s binding or are considering getting a book rebound, feel free to contact us for insights and recommendations.

 

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Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.

 

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About this blog

How can I identify a first edition? Where do I learn about caring for books? How should I start collecting? Hear from librarians about amazing collections, learn about historic bindings or printing techniques, get to know other collectors. Whether you are just starting or looking for expert advice, chances are, you'll find something of interest on blogis librorum.

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